WINNIPEG (CUP) &- “As a musician, I identify more with the writing world than with the musician world,” explained Amelia Curran. “That’s my craft, so I’ve just got to keep on practising, and out of it some gems come out.”
This may seem like a strange statement to hear from a musician whose fourth album, Hunter, Hunter, is receiving widespread critical acclaim. The songstress has also performed at the Winnipeg Folk Festival and was a finalist for Newfoundland on CBC’s Great Canadian Song Quest. She’s topping campus radio charts nationwide and establishing herself as an artist worth paying attention to.
Curran’s albums feature her singular voice inhabiting each brooding note and mellow chord, but it’s actually her language that forms the bones of her work. She is now gaining recognition as a “singer-songwriter,” and it makes sense that someone who claims to be “a little bit obsessed” with language would be part of a genre where the verbal message is arguably the most important element.
Although Curran is far from being the only singer-songwriter to see herself as a wordsmith, her work provides an interesting look at the relationship between oral and written forms of language because she writes simultaneously for both.
Curran says that she always wrote, but when it comes to songwriting she just “tripped up in it” while busking in downtown St. John’s, N.L.
“I just got bored of playing with same Sinead O’Connor song, “Three Babies,’ over and over and over again,” said Curran. So she ended up writing her own material. But even outside of that, she continues to write poetry and has written and produced plays.
Interestingly enough, the first songs she ever wrote were numbers for musicals. Through studying theatre in university, she developed a respect for minimalist work that makes use of silence, citing playwrights Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett as major influences.
“As a playwright, I wanted to take simple everyday language and make them the saddest things in context. Songwriting can do that as well,” she said. So while the beautifully crafted lyrics on Hunter, Hunter are remarkable achievements by any standard, they are also a testament to all the years of work she’s put in to developing as an artist.
Writing for different genres has allowed Curran to create a strong voice, but it has also made her very conscious of the differences between these mediums. For example, she doesn’t include written copies of the song lyrics with her albums. While this may frustrate listeners, it was a conscious choice made with the understanding that a song is very different from “a poem on a page, [which] is really at home there.”
“As a poet, I don’t think that [songs] look very good written down and I think that they read very awkwardly, and I don’t think that does justice to the piece. I can’t stand to see them written down, really, because I’m not a snob about it &- I like the word “baby’ in songs and I like “oh, oh, oh’ choruses and to write it down is not “it,’ really,” she said. “It’s not the right medium at all”.
This statement puts its finger on a crucial problem in how to interpret the word-centric nature of songwriting. Icons like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan all achieved pseudo-mythical status, and are often quoted the same way that people quote playwrights, poets or novelists. In this way, songwriting is as much a literary form as other more-recognized genres, informed by its own distinctive stylistic conventions, clichÃ©s and formal devices.
But when you get down to it, spoken and written forms of language do not translate. What makes a novel riveting does not make a reading of that text exciting for an audience to hear in person; this may be one reason why the phrase “poetry reading” so often elicits groans. Similarly, the differences between a fascinating theatrical performance and the script being produced are often just as striking as that between looking at a box of pinned insects versus visiting a butterfly garden, and the same goes for lyrics.
With songs, she said, “If it’s good then it exists because it’s something that can’t be said any other way, and so it has to be in that form.”
Normally when people describe a songwriter’s work as “poetry,” it’s meant to be praise, but there is undoubtedly some snobbery inherent in this way of looking at language. In this view, lyricism is basically the poor bastard cousin of poetry, a diluted and popularized version of the form. At most, the songwriter can aspire to be considered a kind of “honourary poet,” but the popular perception seems to be that written words are inherently more legitimate. What’s more is that within North America almost everyone, including those who don’t see themselves as particularly interested in language arts, is almost perpetually exposed to a wide range of music lyrics. Just try telling people you don’t know Shakespeare or the Beatles and see which one provokes more shock.
“It was a real easy and natural flow for me to get into what I’m doing now,” Curran said. She continues to be inspired by the same preoccupations, too &- “Love, which is a theme that no writer can ever, or should ever, get away from. Loneliness is fascinating; the importance of down and out is great.”
Later on, she mused that, “Sadness is so lingering and so easy to catch, but that doesn’t mean you’re a sad individual.”
One certainly gets a sense of that melancholy-without-hopelessness from Curran’s work. The experience with theatre also comes through in the way each song captures subtly different perspectives while remaining uniquely her own.
For now, Curran looks to publish her poetry as well as continue with songwriting. After all, written and oral distinctions aside, language is language, and this is one artist who knows how to use it. She says it best herself.
“When things are put so perfectly, it’s almost like you can cheer for them.”
Amelia Curran will be visiting the Green Room Feb. 10.